One thing that keeps me from getting in trouble with my employer on account of this website is that I strenuously avoid any discussion of or references to specific things that happen to me "on the job." When I do talk about teaching or the university environment I keep things as vague as possible, withholding specific references to a class, colleague, or student. I'm going to try to keep this rough set of guidelines intact today. I like teaching to the point that it barely feels like work. So it's fair to assume that an angry teaching moment is overdue.

In my current assignment I am not in control of the standards to which the students are held. I legitimately despise the prevailing school of thought at the average Big Public University (since this obviously isn't an isolated problem) that grading undergraduates must be done according to what I like to call "Special Olympics rules" – just show up and everyone gets a medal. Quality and/or success are optional.

Grades should, of course, look something like a normal distribution, with the majority centered around "average" and smaller numbers at the high and low ends. The average grade for subjective work (essays, papers, essay exams) in a large class should be a middle C (75%). I have accepted the fact that here at Specific Big Public U the expectation is more along the lines of 78-80%. That is, mean/median grades should be on the B-/C+ borderline. A slightly exaggerated mean is fine with me, as it largely rewards students who try hard but for some reason don't end up with good results. In other words, it doesn't affect the A's or the F's – it largely turns a 73-75% into a 78-80%. Fine. Whatever. Doesn't bother me.

What is troubling is the occasional not-so-subtle suggestion that the distribution needs to change, and specifically that too many people are in the F range. Like, gee, that's a lot of students who are failing…shouldn't some of those F's be D's? Don't a lot of those D's look like C's? The message is clear even if the implications are ignored: no one should fail. Everyone who hands in all of the required work should pass. Failing grades are reserved for people who don't hand in the research papers or don't show up for one of the exams. It's OK to fail them. Everyone else gets a Participation Trophy.

Perhaps I am not yet jaded enough, given a scant five years' experience, to see the logic in giving everyone a passing grade for enrolling in the course and (intermittently) showing up. But the fact is that students perform exactly to our stated expectations. No more, no less. If we reward people for handing in shit, they will hand in shit. If we demand that they hand in something of good quality in order to get the A's and B's, most of them will do it. At the very least they will put in a good effort even if the results remain mediocre.

When people tell me "You have to go easy on them, they're just freshmen!" I like to note that they are college freshmen. They are not infants. Yes, they went to high schools of variable quality. No, they cannot be expected to hand in research papers that are New Yorker-ready masterpieces of literary style and substance. Here's what we can expect of written work, no matter who or where we teach:

  • A clear topic or thesis statement. The paper has to be about something.
  • Cited research. Don't plagiarize and don't write about your opinion.
  • A rough approximation of correct English grammar, spelling, and style.

    Is that so fucking hard? Is that unrealistic? A paper that does the bare minimum – the mean/median grade I talked about earlier – does these three things. To get into the A or B range requires going beyond this; the argument in the paper actually makes sense, the research is particularly in-depth and shows initiative on the student's part, and the grammar/style are free of all but the most trivial errors. My experience is that a plurality of students – 40 percent – can do more than the Three Basics, hence the A's and B's. Another 40% do the bare minimum and no more, hence the "median" grades in the 70-80 range. The remaining 20% fail to clear one of these three incredibly difficult and unreasonable hurdles that I have thrown in front of them.

    Why is this fair to expect of any undergrad regardless of high school preparation or academic experience? Because these things will all be done for students who seek the help. The campus writing center will proofread your paper and fix the grammatical Hindenburgs. Your professor will help you formulate a topic and structure a simple argument around it. A librarian or your instructors can help you figure out how to do basic research in a library or online database. Based on this we might conclude that anyone who fails to do the Three Basics is simply lazy, too lazy to seek out any of the resources that would have done it for them. But we would be wrong.

    Laziness plays a role with some students, but it is also learned behavior. The student does not go to the campus writing center for proofreading because all of the illiterate crap he has submitted in his academic life has been rewarded with a good grade. He feels no need to figure out a topic/argument because he has handed in dozens of papers about nothing and received B's in return. The expectation is that I will not upset the status quo, that if the assignment is "write a 10-page paper" then everyone who hands in 10 inked pages passes. I am expected to put a C on papers that tell me that campaign finance laws are "straight bullshit" (actual quote), to accept papers about how presidential candidates routinely "fake the funk" (no, seriously) or to read sentences like the following without stabbing my pen through the paper:

    Many people in high federal office trying to raise as much money that they can help pad themselves to have as much as possible for their quest for the presidency.

    With all professional respect toward the students, we don't owe them a fucking thing in terms of outcomes. What we owe them is an open door and the willingness to help them – whether it takes 5 minutes or 5 hours – understand and meet/exceed the requirements of the course. No one is entitled to a particular grade just by showing up. Sorry. Even as a young Padawan Learner in this profession it is apparent to me that I am going to have problems throughout my career on account of my attitude on this subject. So be it. We need to be a lot more willing to tell students, many of them for the first time in their lives, that horseshit isn't good enough. My brief experience is that saying "This is crap, you have to do better work" results in most students doing better work. Most of them can and will.

    College students are adults and they do not benefit from coddling. If they fail to meet the bare minimum of academic standards, one of two things is true. Either the students do not realize they are doing poor work, in which case they should be told the truth, or they knowingly submit total crap and believe that it entitles them to a passing grade, in which case no amount of jading will ever lessen my desire to disabuse them of that notion.

  • 26 thoughts on “SPECIAL OLYMPICS”

    • even in high school we get this pressure to "move 'em along" like fucking cattle. at the end of every semester i get the standard principal pep talk of "so, what can we do so that students x, y, and z don't get this F you have them receiving?" I just think to myself, "what, at this point? all they need to do is invent a time machine, head on back, and DO SOME GODDAMNED WORK."

      i can't tell if it's more frustrating to be forced to assign passing grades to work that is below the pale or to assign passing grades to students who don't even turn in shitty work. i think maybe the latter. but just like you, my hands are tied. it's definitely straight bullshit.

    • A-friekin'-men. Before I got picked up on an RA, I TA'd two semesters in the computer science department at a medium-sized private university. The kids that get in are supposed to be highly intelligent, energetic, blah blah blah. In reality, a lot of them wanted me to give them the answers or stand behind them and show them exactly how to do something so they could get back to their Blackberries. All in all, I weep for the country's future if this trend continues. And it doesn't show signs of stopping.

    • Teacher, heal thyself! "Below the pale" is itself beyond the pale.
      I know it isn't really your topic here, but speaking from the perspective of 20+ years in the trenches (and admittedly, the protection of tenure), some students will actually thank you for holding them accountable. After all, it's really a form of respect, and even those who will never get that coveted A are capable of recognizing that you are according them the privilege of taking them seriously.

    • As a person who has failed several college courses, taken them again and passed (it was not easy for me), please do not give in. School is hard work, but so is real life, and if they never learn they won't be of service to anyone upon graduation.

    • I graduated from the school that you teach at and I would say that a students effort often correlates with the effort of the teacher. I have taken several Political Science classes and often times the teacher seems uninterested in teaching. When the teacher doesn't care the student will not care. College students know when they can turn in BS assignments and head to happy hour. I always had respect for teachers who came prepared for class and seemed interested in what they are teaching (daily quizzes also helped with my attendance). The blame for shit work should be blamed for the most part on shit teachers. I understand that there are some kids that should fail because they just don't care and do not want to be in class/school in the first place…

      People reading this blog should know that Ed is the best political science teacher I had in college. If you have a chance to take a class with him I suggest you do so.

    • I thank you for the kind comments and, yes, professorial effort is often a problem. A big problem. And the problem is at its worst with the most tenured/veteran professors. That's all I have to say about that.

      We know the students probably don't want to be in class, so if the prof acts like he doesn't want to be there either….well, it doesn't take a PhD to figure out what's going to happen there.

    • It's times like this that my inner reactionary comes out, and I start blurting out things like "They should all have Strunk & White tattooed on their inner eyelids"–I've found that when I do, my colleagues manage that look perhaps unique to academia, a combination of dismay, embarassment, obligatory offense and deep-seated agreement. Mostly the latter.

      It's way too easy to blame high schools for these failings; personally, I'd rather commit seppuku with a Sharpie than work in the trenches, so I can't bring myself to condemn the teachers there. I think it's this weird, illogical culture of ours that somehow took an ugly turn from "Everyone should have the opportunity to go to college"–a nobly fair-minded ideal–to "Everyone should go to college, period"–which is lunacy. College diplomas are now required to get starting jobs at places like Denny's–janitors and garbage men need to prove that at least they had the brains to hit the local CC. This is the equivalent of the 'lifeboat-ethics' scenario in which we try to save everyone in the water and end up capsizing the boat. Except that in this case, the water's fine and everyone can swim. Some people don't *want* to go to college–they simply want the *job* that's on the far side of it. And that's fine, but we need to set up lots and lots of targeted vocational schools so that these people clear out and the people who remain are people who are actually engaged by intellectualism and expanding the limits of their knowledge.

      Kind of like declaring pot retroactively legal so that the federal prisons will empty out, and only the people who *belong* there remain.

    • J.,

      i dont think that the prevailing notion in most high schools is that all students should attend college. I understand that you are insinuating that the job market itself is pushing this point. However, many schools (outside of high socio-economic status, where they *do* expect 90+ percent to attend a 4 year) focus on student goals for their future. You want college? sure, we'll help with that! you want to work on cars? sure, let's get you in that vocational program! i cant speak for every school, but i saw these things happen at the two high schools i attended (NY and san diego) as well as all the schools i have worked with and in.

      to expect all students to attend a university is, to say the least, unrealistic. i will agree with that. i also believe that expecting a garbage man to have some kind of degree is in fact retarded. The whole job market system seems to devalue the degrees that those of us who did try obtained. in some fields (including public ed lately) a bachelor's isn't even good enough anymore. i had to get a master's just to make enough money to pay my fucking rent being "in the trenches."

    • "A clear topic or thesis statement. The paper has to be about something."

      This gives me a sense of relief that I'm in the hard sciences.

      "Cited research. Don’t plagiarize and don’t write about your opinion."

      Do kids still try to plagiarize in the age of Google?

      "A rough approximation of correct English grammar, spelling, and style."

      Sounds like you have entirely too many Republicans for an institute of higher learning.

    • What's the rule for when Graduate students don't understand an election-relevant topic?

      My paper dealt with an unconventional subject- I would never be as unoriginal as to write a paper on campaign finance or the role of race in an election. That's the easy way out in my opinion. My topic was creative, relevant, and while difficult to research, came together for a very clear overall message. I took my paper to the writing center, the editors who went over it found literally no spelling or grammatical errors, and said it was very well put together.

      The issue the AI had with my paper was that they did not understand many of the references within the work. I was under the impression that my paper would be read by someone who was very much aware of this year's election. My references were well broadcasted on every news outlet I pay attention to, CNN, Drudge, and even Al Jazeera weekly. So the material in question was in my opinion, "common knowledge."

      I received a C on the paper. I don't feel that I'm owed any grade my the University staff, however I do feel that I deserved a better grade.

    • Hello unidentified student – this is not an appropriate forum for discussing academic work. I suggest you begin with the person who graded your paper.

      The quality of undergraduates varies greatly….as is also the case with graduate students. So if you don't get a satisfactory resolution from said grader – whether it is me or someone else – don't be shy about taking your concerns to the Prof-in-Charge.

    • I think 2Ohio's point is appropriate. There is defiantly disparity in the way each graduate student grades papers and tests. There isn't a clean-cut way to make all grading procedures the same.

    • Of course there is disparity in the way a person grades something else, it's human nature. Poly Sci isn't like math where there is only one correct answer for a given problem, rather almost any answer is acceptable if you do the aforementioned things that Ed mentioned. However, the best way to get a good grade on something is to talk to the AI/prof. From my experience, more often than not they'll slip you some suggestions on what they're looking for or whether your paper sounds/looks good.

      As someone who has Ed for a class, I can say that he's easily one of the best profs/AIs/etc that I've had. That being said, anyone who thinks a blog comment is an acceptable medium to complain about a grade or grading procedure is probably the type of person that can't formulate a thesis well to begin with. Do yourselves a favor and go fucking talk to the person face-to-face.

    • Reading this post reminds me of Ed's classic post almost 2 years ago:


      I am a firm believer of offering people as much help as they SEEK and letting the lazy fall flat on their faces (odds are they are the kids who will just work for mommy or daddy anyways). I completely agree with you Ed. No one deserves a pat on the back for shit work. It hurts the integrity of the institution and greatly stunts the maturation process. A friend once told me "C's get degrees". At first hearing this I was frustrated and annoyed at how true his statement was. We both worked very hard to get our degrees. However, we both agreed we were better off in the long run. For what, who knows. But if there was one thing I wish I could see from students now is determination to take academic risks and strive for more. When you open yourself up to it, you realize 4 years isn't nearly enough time to soak up all that a university has to offer you. Cheers to you Ed for being an challenging/thought provoking instructor. I gained a lot from your courses, academically, and also have a bunch of useless knowledge in my head:

      Calvin Coolidge liked to have pictures taken of himself wearing boy scout uniforms is one that sticks out.

      Also, wasn't it Andrew Jackson who had a massive block of cheese rolled onto the White House lawn?

    • Having taught at the same unmentioned university, I not only experienced the pressure to use whatever means possible to avoid failures I also clearly heard the message "Do as little as possible in regards to teaching; you are here to research, not to teach." This latter message was more frustrating for me at that time and to some extent lends support to the notion that as an institution that doesn't value effort in teaching, should we really expect them to value effort from students. Having left said university, I can say that it is not like that everywhere. Thankfully, my students now seem to have much higher standards for themselves and are quite academically ambitious. My impression so far is that subpar teaching is not acceptable.

      As an aside, I have seen a few recent articles and newscasts on this same overall trend in the workplace. Managers that are overseeing the transition of this same generation into the workforce also complain of the "everybody gets a trophy" mentaility and the perverse sense of self esteem and entitlement it has created. I am hesitant to overgeneralize an entire generation in such a pejorative way, but it does make me question some of my parenting techniques.

    • Oh, man. I feel you. I've had to grade some pretty horrible examples of the English language. It was especially pathetic that the students I knew who have English as a second language did far better, with some grammatical errors, than their slacker counterparts.

      I've also had to witness my Prof (the one I GA for) argue with two students who turned in the exact same paper, verbatim, about the idea that they plagiarized. They kept trying to say they "used the same sources" and "worked together" on it. UGH. Really?

      I think my Prof stopped letting me grade things because I was too hard on people and she got complaints.

    • What can you expect of teachers who have research as their primary focus, and then have to lecture also? It takes ~24 hours of preparation time for a 1-hour lecture.

    • Several semesters ago I had a student who was a refugee from one of the worst, most repressive countries on the planet. Said student had only been in the US for about 6 months, spoke poor english, and spent most of his/her time trying to figure out if anyone in the extended family had been imprisoned or murdered as retribution for the ones who sought asylum here.

      And he/she handed in a paper that was better (and more intelligible) than about 25% of the papers in the class. Sometimes I wish I could tell the whining, entitled SOBs that make up half the student body about the students who make them look so very, very bad.

    • As a student, it was fairly obvious which professors cared about teaching and students and which professors didn't really give a shit about teaching and only cared about research. I had a few professors that were outright hostile towards students. I don't know if a professor's attitude is a personal preference or affected by guidelines handed down from their department. I do know that I learned a hell of a lot more from the professors that liked teaching and students, and my assignments/papers were normally of a higher quality and actually enjoyable to do. I also know that I was fucking pissed off after dealing with an asshole professor or having my time wasted by a professor that didn't care after paying a lot of money for college.

      I understand that research is a big part of a professor's job in many cases. However, placing a strong emphasis on teaching and creating a positive, engaging classroom environment are crucial for producing a student to achieve high marks and reach his/her potential.

      I would maybe cut freshman some slack. There is a process of adaptation to college for freshman, especially for those whose public educations didn't prepare them for college. But, those who want to improve and do well will find a way to do so. If people are able to improve and succeed in college but choose not to, then they reap what they sow. I don't think there is anything wrong with telling a kid their work is shit. Following this, I do think there is something wrong if the professor does not keep their door open for help, encourage the said student to take advantage of the plentiful resources for help, or is just being hostile toward the student.

    • Late to the game, but I'm clapping, too. May I add that class level makes a difference? A 101 core class is a cattle call, so the combo is low individual attention from the prof + less slack cut the tadpoles balanced by less challenging coursework. If you can't cut a 101, get out while you can.

      The higher the level, the smaller the class, the harder the work, the more stringent the review, the more focused the cultivation from instructors.

      Please don't cut slack to anyone! This isn't a glorified babysitting service. I understand that the job market requires an irrelevent four year degree for its scutwork; I don't care. What's the worst that could happen? A smarter public? Wouldn't that be a good thing?

    • I think it is true that undergrad students are well past the point of being coddled. However, the problem is you, Ed, are a fairly rare breed at Indiana University (and I assume most major Universities). You somehow manage to know most if not all of your students names, even though poli sci classes are in no way small. If you saw a student who tried relatively hard but wasn't doing that well, you would reach out to help them. You don't have to tell your students you want them to do well (by earning it) – they can just sense it. I have teachers who completely ignore that I exist, and when I put less than half of the effort I could into a paper, they slap a grade on it and don't even bat an eyelash. The University doesn't need to pressure it's teachers to give better grades, it needs to pressure them into being more interested in their students WANTING to get better grades. But unfortunately, very few professors actually care if their students are trying, and even less take the time to reach out and actually learn who their students are.

      It's a two way street.

    • Sending on to a friend who is an English Fresh Comp professor at a cc.

      She will so completely get what you're saying here.

      As both a student and a parent, please, please don't give me or my kids a grade we didn't earn. How are we supposed to improve if we are never, ever told what we did wrong?

    • Thank you for raising this point. At some point, these students leave the university to join the workforce. If students have been allowed to "slide" along all their lives, I pity to seem them when they have to pursue gainful employment.

      Then again, I guess these students may have some hope-They might end up working for the UN, or better yet, go on to become President.

    • As a student I can say that this legitimately pisses me off. In high school I was fortunate enough to have teachers who gave me the grades I deserved. Because they absolutely reamed me when I turned in poor work, I was motivated to improve. Now that I'm at the University of Washington (which is supposed to be a good school) I have zero motivation to improve because I can consistently get 3.5s and higher by turning in something I wrote in a drunken stupor at 2AM the night before. Seriously, I got a 3.8 for a presentation about the zombie apocalypse in a TECH WRITING course. Where is the justice in that?

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